Review: Nioh (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4

Format/Hardware Used:

  • Blu-ray Disc
  • PS4 Pro
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
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Title: Nioh
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (39.37 GB)
Release Date: February 7, 2017
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Team Ninja
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
PEGI: 18
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

The third of three long-in-development games to finally release, Nioh was first announced over a decade ago and saw a troubled and drawn out development which was time enough for the Souls series to be introduced and explode in popularity. Eventually handed off to Team Ninja, Nioh takes some inspiration from Dark Souls, but with some flourishes all its own.

The story follows William who is loosely based on the historical figure William Adams. In the game, William is an English sailor working for the Queen. After supplying her with a small supply of Amrita, which they believe to be part of the Philosopher’s Stone, he is set to be silenced via execution. With the help of a guardian spirit, he is able to escape but the spirit is captured in the process.

Following the spirit’s captor in order to free it, William makes his way to Japan. There he finds a country slowly being overrun by demons known as Yokai. As he has the power to vanquish them, he agrees to help the local Japanese in return for their help in tracking down the guardian spirit. Instead, he eventually becomes involved in their civil war.

Right off the bat, one of the clearest differences between Nioh and the Souls games is that the former has a more traditional story. Souls games are often intentionally vague about a specific plot however Nioh features more typical cutscenes and story sections. It also takes some liberties to make the real people shown in it more fun and interesting. Both with some supernatural elements and some humor.

Gameplay:
Nioh is an action RPG that definitely edges toward the difficult end of the spectrum. However, much like Team Ninja’s series Ninja Gaiden, Nioh offers a very technical experience that gives the players all the tools they need to succeed. Especially for those willing to learn the intricacies of the system.

The combat is very smooth and fluid. William’s attacks offer a satisfying oomph to them and the control is tight and responsive. Being able to dodge in and out of enemy attack patterns is a key part of Souls and Ninja Gaiden games and it’s replicated well here.

… probably the most technical aspect of the game …
Attacking follows a pretty typical weak/strong paradigm and should be familiar to most gamers. What Nioh adds to the formula is the ability to switch between several stances that change the properties of both attacks and William’s defensive options. The game’s three stances, low/mid/high, generally trade off speed and maneuverability for power.

There are plenty of situations that call for each stance and switching is fast and easy. I did find myself using the mid stance most of the time though, probably as the happy middle ground between movement and damage.

The stances also differ in Ki usage and managing this is probably the most technical aspect of the game. Ki acts very similar to a stamina bar used in other action games. Running, attacking, dodging, generally most game actions use Ki and while it recovers relatively quickly it limits how much the player can do before they need to stop for a moment. Running out of Ki at an inopportune time will leave the player defenseless.

However the game augments this stamina system with what it called a “Ki pulse.” After an attack string, a well timed button hit will activate the Ki pulse and regenerate some of the Ki used. Performing this well gives the player a lot more options, both in terms of having the Ki to continue their offense or to use defensive options. Ki Pulses can also cleanse auras set by stronger enemies which inhibit Ki regeneration making it even more important against those enemies.

… only five types of melee weapons in the game …
The Ki Pulse mechanic will likely be the make-or-break mechanic for most people. I was able to wrap my head around it early on and use it to good effect. But I could see the game being a lot more difficult for those who can’t seem to get the hang of it.

William’s other abilities include ninjutsu and magic which both augment his battle options. Ninjutsu abilities usually allow him to ready number of usable items whenever he rests at a shine. Meanwhile the magic options mostly focus on talismans that he can use to imbue his weapon with additional properties.

Unfortunately the weapon diversity isn’t the best. There are only five types of melee weapons in the game, though fortunately each one does offer different gameplay options. They can all be used in all three stances as well, giving players a little more freedom with each weapon type.

There are a few ranged weapon types as well including some bows and firearms. Ranged weapons in primarily melee games like this sometimes suffer from bad controls but here they work surprisingly well. The ranged options still feel like a support, a way to snipe an annoying bomb-thrower rather than a primary way to advance through the game, but I was glad that the controls worked well when I needed them.

… maps are a little smaller and more linear …
There are lots of different versions of each weapon though, and each can drop with varying stats or abilities. Loot flows pretty consistently from enemies and chests giving the player plenty of equipment to choose from. The main map in the game also has a blacksmith who has the usual array of options from buying, creating, combining, and upgrading William’s equipment.

The game uses a mission system which helps separate it from the Souls series. Because of this, individual maps are a little smaller and more linear. There are usually at least a few alternate routes and shortcuts but it doesn’t have the overall connectivity. It does try to get more out of its areas with side missions that can have the player running through the map in a different direction or change up the enemies/locations.

Having separated missions isn’t a new thing for video games, but it actually works well here. While I miss the feeling of turning an unfamiliar corner and suddenly finding a familiar landmark, this does have its advantages. There’s no backtracking needed and I feel like it’s less likely I’d get lost if I picked up the game after not playing for a few months. Having a breather after each mission in the hub is nice as well for a game that can be as tense as this.

Missions offer loot rewards of course, giving some incentive to doing side missions. Some of these vary the formula in several ways as well, for example being only a boss fight or making the player fight waves of enemies in a single area.

… the game never felt unfair …
Overall it seems like there’s a lot to find in Nioh. On top of spending time trying to get better loot and upgrades, there are other optional things like unlockable titles or extra hard ‘twilight missions.’ I’m only a couple dozen hours into the game as of this writing and it seems like there is still a metric ton of content for me to explore. Completionists may have their work cut out for them.

In terms of difficulty, the game does drop into the upper echelons. It has a mechanic similar to that used in the Souls games, where the player must return to where they died or they lose the amrita, used for leveling up, that they had on them. The player is slightly disadvantaged during this time too because their guardian spirit stays with their body.

The guardian spirit gives William the ability to summon a “living weapon” which is essentially a super mode. While the living weapon is active, William’s attacks gain extra effects and he can’t be damaged while in the mode. This is one mechanic that makes the game a little easier than its predecessors. Of course this mechanic has to be charged, so the player still has to deal with the difficult portions most of the time.

Even though it’s difficult overall, the game never felt unfair to me. The responsive controls really help make it seem fair. When I died it was my fault and not the game’s. Occasionally there will be enemies hiding around a corner or a trap to surprise the player but even then I felt that if I had stayed vigilant I could have avoided it.

… draws heavily on Japanese culture for its aesthetic …
My biggest complaint would probably be enemy variety. There isn’t a ton of it, with pirates/bandits and undead making up the majority of enemies. Slowly the game adds on different foes but there are almost always undead in the level as filler too.

I know I’ve spent a lot of this section making comparisons to the Souls series and I believe it’s warranted because the game feels heavily inspired. Still Nioh is definitely its own beast and a worthy title regardless of where it draws inspiration. The tight controls and tense difficulty go a long way in cementing this as a good game in its own right.

Visuals:
Being mostly set in Japan, save for one level at the start of the game, Nioh draws heavily on Japanese culture for its aesthetic. The rustic fishing villages and temples definitely evoke the feeling of 1600’s Japan. It’s not uncommon to pass a torii gate into a shinto shrine and William can end up decked out in samurai or ninja gear. Enemies also draw heavily from Japanese culture with the big oni enemies like one might see in traditional Japanese woodblock illustrations.

The graphic fidelity is good but not great, however Team Ninja has the excuse of having pushed the envelope on performance over pure graphics. In doing so, they have also offered up three distinct graphics modes for the PS4 and for the PS4 Pro. Both have the same options but the Pro gets a distinct bump in each one.

The best, in my opinion, is the “Action Mode.” This locks the game at 60fps, employing a variable resolution to cover when there is a lot on screen. There is also a “Movie Mode” that locks the game to 30fps to get better and more consistent resolutions, though it can still vary. And finally there is a “Movie Mode with Variable Framerate” that has an unlocked framerate which tends to split the difference between the other modes.

This video by Digital Foundry goes into more of the performance of the game than I could get into. Regardless, I’m very impressed with how well the game runs, particularly in Action Mode. No doubt the consistent 60fps contributed to the responsive feeling of the game. I was on a PS4 Pro but it sounds like that smooth framerate even applies to the base PS4 so everyone should be able to experience it.

… both English and Japanese where appropriate …
Audio:
Nioh employs an atmospheric approach to sound design. For the most part, the music in the game is very subdued or even non-existent. It can, however, become more overt when the game is trying to evoke a tense feeling from the player. Overall, the approach works well and the music is good for what the game is going for.

That said, I was occasionally annoyed by the sound effects. The shrines that serve as respawn points make a grating sound that reminds me of wood creaking. As those places tend to be safe spaces to stop and fiddle with my loadout, I became a little annoyed with it. And when I was given a powerful lightning-imbued sword, it made a constant buzzing/zapping sound whenever it was not in its scabbard that slowly got on my nerves.

Voice acting is interesting in that the game uses both English and Japanese where appropriate. William and the man he is chasing both speak English while most of the Japanese people speak Japanese. There’s a little bit of hand waving over the language barrier although at least one Japanese character is shown to also know English. And the game has an amusing cutscene predicated on the fact that not everyone can understand William.

Online/Multiplayer:
For the moment, the only online play comes from cooperative modes. Supposedly a player vs player mode is in the works but it is not ready as of this writing. The co-op is working though, and it’s a blast even if it severely reduces the game’s difficulty.

When playing a mission for the first time, the respawn shrines can be used to summon an ally at the cost of a specific consumable item. Once summoned, that ally can help the host beat the mission and in my case, even showed me the location of a few hidden items.

From the player’s camp on the main map, they can also set up a co-op game in missions they’ve already completed. This method adds some more options such as the ability to only co-op with people on their Friends List. There’s also an option to add a password but for some reason it has been grayed out.

… a well crafted and enjoyable game …
One thing I really like about the co-op play is with looking to help other people. I didn’t really care what mission I was going to help others on and there’s an option for that. This made waiting to find a co-op session, even in the limited population pre-release servers, a lot less time consuming. Of course one can set a specific mission too if they only want to help others on a specific one.

Doing online missions with others not only gives the helper loot, there’s also a clan system set up in the game. Oddly it’s not available until a ways into the game. Different clans offer the player different incremental boosts and players gain glory for playing online which goes to their clan. Glory can also be spent on items from a specific vendor.

Though there is no true PvP, there is one last online mechanic which lets players fight a computer controlled enemy based on other players. When someone dies in the game, their death location will appear in the games of other players. Those other players can then summon an AI of that person to fight them. Winning this fight also gives loot and glory.

Conclusion:
Nioh is a well crafted and enjoyable game, even when it’s kicking my ass. The game’s systems are difficult while remaining fair to the player, thanks in large part to the game’s performance and responsiveness. Even when I was faced with the death screen telling me I had been “freed from this mortal coil,” I knew it was because I had messed up.

The difficulty only makes victory that much sweeter too. One particular time, I managed to beat a boss after using my last healing item and with only a sliver of health remaining. I was elated, of course, but also surprised and my heart was still racing from being on edge for the end of the fight. It was an odd feeling but that was one of many moments that I loved.

I do wish the game had some more enemies to fight and that some of the more annoying sound effects weren’t as prominent. The search for better and better loot is good and the overall quality is well worth the small issues. I’d easily recommend the game to those looking for a challenge. Turns out that these yokai aren’t for watching, they’re for slaying.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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